My parents had a disagreement when I was a five-year old about to start school. My father wanted me to go to the local authority school nearby, but my mother, thinking I would be frightened there, preferred St Albans Prep, the fee-paying private school in Clarendon Square. I was a pupil there from 1944 to 1947.
The headmistress, Miss M M Matthews, the only teacher and owner of this very small educational establishment, was an old lady, possibly even in her eighties, who wore long dark skirts usually secured with a safety pin and had her thin wispy silver hair done up in a bun from which long strands were always escaping. She ruled her dozen or so pupils between the ages of five and twelve quite firmly and I, for one, was quite scared of her.
Our classroom, in fact the only room for the entire school, was on the first floor of an elegant house overlooking Clarendon Square garden and it was there that we spent the whole of our school day. There was a mid-morning break to consume our one third of a pint bottle of milk which in winter would be frozen solid with a pillar of milk forcing off the cardboard top. Fortunately the bottles were thawed for us in a saucepan of hot water heated on a two-ring gas boiler in the corridor. At mid-day we went home for dinner – yes, dinner – before returning for the afternoon session.
The curriculum covered arithmetic, reading, writing, essays, French and collects, the last of which we had to learn by heart and which I never comprehended. I’m not too sure how Miss Matthews organized the teaching of such a varied age range but I have clear memories of my helping an older boy with his arithmetic by explaining things to him but not doing it for him. Presumably that was permitted.
I remember that I had great difficulty learning to tell the time, as the clock on the mantelpiece had Roman numerals. Another problem for me was going to the toilet, because you had to ask permission to go, and it wasn’t always given and, moreover, as the lavatory was situated at the end of a long, lonely corridor, one was rather reluctant to make the journey and tended to ‘hold on.’ A recipe for disaster!
The highlights of the school year were the spring visits to a private wood where we picked bluebells, (highly illegal nowadays), and the autumn trips to Northumberland Road to gather conkers, though I don’t remember actually playing conkers.
Initially my parents and I lived in ‘rooms’ in a house in Beauchamp Avenue and then later we had a flat in Portland Street. Once, walking back to school in the afternoon I did something I was forbidden to do: I walked through the garden in Clarendon Square though I was supposed to stay on the road. As I emerged on to the street I was confronted by a man on a bike who invited me go for a ride with him. I politely declined and shot up the steps opposite and into school where I told my teacher. My mother’s reaction when I got home later that afternoon was to contact the police.
In 1947 we moved to Solihull where my father’s employer, the Rover Company, had had houses built for their staff. When my mother was looking for a school for me, this time within the State system, she was told that after my private education that although I would probably be able to read I would be no good at anything else so would be put in a class one year below my age group. This duly happened, but before you could say ‘Jack Robinson’ I was moved to a class one year above my age group! So my education couldn’t have been so inadequate at my former ‘dame school.’ Perhaps Miss Matthews had once been a governess – who knows?
Jill Walters, Autumn 2013